Changes to the primary season calendar, campaign finance laws, and proportional delegate allocation have completely upended the Republican presidential primaries in comparison to previous years.
People have compared the current race to the Democratic primaries in 2008, which saw Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battle it out state by state through June. But there were two key differences in the Obama-Clinton race: first, it was a two-candidate race for most of the primary season, with both Clinton and Obama having strong organizations and fundraising; second, the role of the superdelegates -- various elected officials and party insiders -- in the Democratic primary in putting Obama over the top to secure the nomination.
In the current Republican race, there are four candidates competing for delegates. Mitt Romney benefits from having the anti-Romney vote split between Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, so that Republican voters can't coalesce around one candidate to defeat him. The Romney campaign does have considerable organizational and financial advantages compared to their opponents. This means that they have been able to get on ballots, get out their voters, and carpet bomb their opponents on the airwaves with negative advertising. These have made the difference in several races -- i.e. Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia.
There were no superdelegate equivalents in the Republican race in 2008 and 2012. If there were, individual endorsements from Republican elected officials and insiders would probably have Mitt Romney comfortably ahead on his way to securing the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the party's nomination in the current race. The prolonged and often negative nature of the primary campaign has progressively taken its toll on Mitt Romney's favorability ratings.
But the reality from the Romney campaign perspective is it's in their interest to have a divided field, even if it results in a longer and bruising primary season. The alternate scenario would be if Newt Gingrich were to drop out of the race -- as Rick Santorum supporters called for after Super Tuesday - it's likely a good part of his voters would go to Santorum. Santorum could then consolidate the anti-Romney vote in the remaining races. Gingrich's absence on the ballot could have made all the difference for Santorum in tight races in Michigan and Ohio.
If Santorum had won both of those states, his political momentum going into the races ahead in the month of March would have been enormous. For Romney, the media narrative about his inability to close the deal with conservative voters would be even more challenging than it is already, despite significantly outspending his opponents. To paraphrase the classic Beatles song, money can't buy him love.
From the Democratic perspective, it is in their interest to see the GOP circular firing squad continue. Vice President Joe Biden recently said he hoped the Republican candidates would have another twenty debates. The Republican candidates' attack ads, gaffes and soundbites have given Democrats an ample supply of source material for their own attack ads and talking points.
Given those two options, the Romney campaign would obviously prefer the lesser of evils, which keeps the opposition divided and lets them continue to rack up a delegate lead. But this slash-and-burn road to the nomination could come at a very high cost to Romney's favorability ratings for the general election. The question is can they repair the damage in time between the end of the primary season and November?
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